By In Golf

A Toast to Tom

When I was a kid — and this is a bit hard to explain — I didn’t know that a person could grow up to be a sportswriter. Yes, of course, I was aware that sportswriters existed. I read them all the time. My first job was delivering the Cleveland Press, and when the newspaper stack arrived, the first thing I would do was tear open the paper and read the sports section. I knew the sportswriters by name. I would wait by the mailbox on Thursdays (sometimes Fridays) to meet the mail carrier who carried The Sporting News and Sports Illustrated. I can still list off that Sporting News list of columnists. Joe Falls. Art Spander. Bob Verdi. Larry King, of course.

Oh, I knew what sportswriters did and idolized them for it.

But none of that changed the fact that someone like me could not BECOME a sportswriter.

My Dad worked in a factory. Our neighbors, most of them, worked in factories. Some sold furniture or drove busses or worked in construction. Nobody we knew had an exotic job like sports writing. Well, actually, my friend Jay’s Dad worked at NASA, but none of us (Jay included) knew what he did there. It seemed to have nothing to do with astronauts, and I imagined him somehow having a back-breaking job just like every other Dad I knew.*

*This is an aside, but I always wear a jacket and tie when I go to games. Every now and again people will ask me why I’m dressed up, and I’m kind of embarrassed to tell them — I dress up because my parents fondest hope for me, as I understood it, was that I would get a dress-up job, one where I would NEED to wear a jacket and tie. Of course, they had hoped I would become a doctor or a lawyer or an accountant or an executive of some kind. Instead, they got a son who dresses up for Golden State Warriors games. It’s something.

In any case, the idea of becoming a sportswriter was far-fetched and silly and not even worth discussing. And we never did discuss it, not once. In my imagination, sportswriters were born into those job, like royalty or being a Kardashian. I mean, how else could they have gotten jobs where they WROTE ABOUT SPORTS for a living? If this was an actual possibility, well, why wasn’t every kid in America trying to become a sportswriters? I mean: To go to games, to talk to the athletes and coaches, what could possibly be better than that? Sportswriters had to be chosen by some kind of lottery system. It wasn’t even something to dream about.

Tom Sorensen was the man who made me dream.

Tom has been a sportswriter for The Charlotte Observer for almost 35 years. He just announced that he’s going to take a break for a while. I’m not sure —  Tom’s not sure — if he will come back. He only wanted to say it’s been one heck of a ride.

I’ve known Tom as a hero and a mentor and a friend, but before all of that Tom made me believe that being a sportswriter was possible. I’ll always love him for that. I’m not even sure he knows that story, though I told it to him a long time ago.

My family moved to Charlotte when I was in high school, and I quickly figured out the pace and rhythm of the local newspaper. Ron Green was the poet, the longtime columnist who had lived a sportswriter’s life, who had watched Charlotte grow up, who had been there when Jack first played at the Masters, when Dean showed up at North Carolina, when a young Harmon Killebrew hammered home runs for a Charlotte minor league team. Ron’s columns were perfect little things, beautiful black and white photographs in gold frames.

Tom was the wise-ass.

Of course as a young man, I associated with Tom. He was funny, and he was flippant, and he was sarcastic, and, man, he could really write. He specialized in  tough guys — the boxers, the wrestlers, the offensive linemen, the intimidating coaches. I remember he once wrote a column about what it was like when Bob Knight walked into the room. As I remember it, he said it was like when the principal walks in to a classroom being taught by a substitute teacher. I’ve always loved that description. There are a lot of great Sorensen descriptions.

But it wasn’t just reading Tom that changed my life.

No, he changed my life because one day he wrote a mocking column about how he was sick and tired of the Cleveland Browns always being on television in Charlotte. This was obviously long before the Panthers came to town (and long, long before you could watch any NFL game you wanted), and Charlotte was lost in the NFL wild. Most people in town were either Washington fans (about six hours North) or Atlanta fans (about four hours South). So those two teams were always on television.

You will notice, though, that both are NFC teams. Charlotte didn’t really have an AFC team. Cleveland became that AFC team by default. There was a good reason for this: Even now you can’t walk 20 yards in Charlotte without running into someone from Cleveland. See, there was that mass-fleeing of Cleveland — the city’s population in 1960 was 876,000, and and it is now less than half that. Those 480,000 or so people had to go somewhere, and a whole bunch of them came straight down I-77 and stopped in Charlotte.

What I didn’t know then was that The Charlotte Observer office was loaded with Clevelanders, and Tom was probably just busting their chops. But his reason for that evil column didn’t matter; I about lost my mind. I was a Cleveland kid who had come to the South largely against my will, and the one redeeming quality of Charlotte in those days was that the Browns were always on TV.  Tom was ruining it.

“You should call him,” a friend of mine said.

“Nah,” I said.

“No, really you should.”

I did. I called him. It completely went against my character … I was painfully shy then and scared to death to of just about everyone and everything. I guess the possibility of losing my Browns on television pushed me over the edge. I dialed the paper, asked for Tom, and they transferred me. And he answered the phone.

That’s all I remember. He answered the phone. I don’t remember what he said or what I said or what the conversation was like. I’m sure it was typically Tom but what he said didn’t matter. All that mattered was that Tom answered the phone. He talked to me.

He was a real person.

And that changed everything for me.

So silly, right? I know, it makes absolutely no sense, but it’s like an entire world opened up. Before talking with Tom, the idea of being a sportswriter literally would not have occurred to me. Have you seen that preview for the new Kung Fu Panda movie — the Jack Black panda runs into an adult panda.

“I’m looking for my son,” the other panda says.

“I’m looking for my father,” the Jack Black panda says.

And it never occurs to either of them that they are looking for each other. That’s what sports writing was for me until I talked to Tom. Then, suddenly, it became a possibility. Heck, my new friend Tom did it, right?

Such small things can turn lives. If I had not talked to Tom Sorensen that day that I’m not sure I would have had the guts to write a letter to the sports editor of The Charlotte Observer asking for advice. And if I had not written that letter, I would not have gotten the chance to cover high school games for $20 bucks a pop. And if I not covered those high school games for $20 bucks a pop, I would not have gotten an internship at the paper, and if I had not gotten an internship I would not have been hired to be the worst agate clerk in the history of the paper. And if I had not been such a terrible agate clerk, I might not have gotten the chance to write for the paper.

And so on and so on.

In the years since, Tom has affected my life in many more conventional ways, mostly with his kindness and advice and example and, once, for making a terrible fantasy baseball trade that made my team better. He will deny the last part. But it’s true. It’s all true.

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17 Responses to A Toast to Tom

  1. Matt Privett says:


    Thanks for writing this. I grew up in Charlotte and now live about an hour and a half to the east. The Observer is till my hometown paper and Tom Sorenson the columnist I will always most associate with it.

  2. DjangoZ says:

    I love reading stories like this.

  3. Marlene Sokol Stewart says:

    I have loved his writing since meeting him when I got to the Observer. And I am not a sports fan. But Tom made it interesting and funny like Michael Vick the did when he played at VT. So funny and such wit. The Observer has some shoes to fill.

  4. Laura says:

    Joe, I am not a sports fan. I am a Posnanski fan. I will read anything you write because of the elegance of your prose.

  5. Davan Mani says:

    Tom was a nice guy. But I love reading the microfilms of the Observer in the 50’s and 60’s to Kays Gary.

  6. Frank Jones says:

    A great tribute to Tom. When I sent him my congrats, I told him I think of 3 sports writers when I think of the Observer/News–Bob Quincy, Ron Green Sr, and Tom Sorensen!! Pretty good company!!

  7. shagster says:

    It does make one wonder what was going on in Cleveland in late 70s.

    Remember this one nice kid who could not have been a more obnoxious football fan. Until he came along, none of us really paid attention to pro football. And then he did and you almost had to root against this team you’d never heard of called the Browns because he would complain so one sided about Sipe being jobbed. Reminds me of Pats fans today. Without the wins. Nice kid, but boy did his over-the-topness bring a number of fights down on himself. Since then I noticed a number of my friends over the years were from Cleveland area. And all moved South about the same time.

    What happened in Cleveland in 1978 – 79 that made all these families migrate and come to places like Charlotte, Atlanta, Augusta? Tough winter?

  8. Squawks McGrew says:

    Here’s a reverse sportswriter’s story. I worked as a sportswriter for most of the ’80s and remember a lot of my fellow writers couldn’t be bothered talking to fans at games – granted we were often in a hurry with the “go away, kid, you’re bothering me” mentality. Had little time for small talk.

    Like Joe, I remember thinking sportswriters were from some secret place that magically landed them in “The Sporting News.” They weren’t real people. Then, you break bread with a gaggle of them or drive seven hours to Charlottesville in a rental and the magic’s gone. 🙂 Once on the other side of the fence, it never dawned on me that anybody would match my face to my byline. So, if you approached me wanting to talk sports, I thought you were just as passionate as I was — let’s have a conversation.

    I still recall standing outside the pressbox at Sarge Frye Field convincing a fellow baseball fan that this young first basemen the Mariners had would be an excellent fantasy pick, how much I loved Tino Martinez’ swing. Must have talked baseball for 30 minutes with this particular gentleman. But most times, I could pass through a crowd like a ghost.

    Fast forward a few months and the paper gets a new editor. I get released. During my free agency, I get a phone call from a company starting a baseball website. They said I sounded like the perfect candidate for the position. After landing the job, I asked how they stumbled across me since I had never heard of them. Was told someone said I was the guy — that I lived baseball and was available.

    Nobody I knew had any connection to my new employer. I’m convinced it was one of the fans that I took the time to engage in conversation. And I’m thankful to him or her.

  9. Tom Sorensen says:

    Joe — Thanks. That means a lot. Cool that you still remember the little people. About the trade: I wanted Ruben Sierra so I could name my team the Sierra Club. We both won. Take care. Tom

    • Mark Colone says:

      In a nutshell, that column by Joe was perfect as was Tom’s response to it. I can’t Imagine The Charlotte Observer without him. I can’t imagine sports with Joe or Tom. Thankfully, we have been blessed to have both for a very long a wonderful ride.

    • Rick Bender says:

      It’s so nice to see names of old friends writing in for the tribute to Tom. Miss my time at Davidson, working with all of the Observer folks, even wise-cracking Tom and 49er folks like the impossible-not-to-like Mark Colone. Tom, all the best to you and hope you grace us with your writing (and wit) again!

  10. MikeN says:

    I thought this would be about Tom Brady after he lost the perfect season.

  11. Andrew says:

    Never mind being a really good sportswriter. You’re wearing a jacket and tie to realize the dreams of your working-class parents. That counts with me.

  12. The Posnanski feel is in this article. The sentence structure? Not so much. Nevertheless, I’m arguably the biggest JoPo fan in ALL of KC! Nice sentiment, Joe! Miss yourThanksgiving articles in the Star… Turkey Day has never been the same. I’m re-reading your past works ’cause YOU HAVEN’T POSTED ANYTHING NEW IN A WHILE!!!! The “Browns Diary” was a hoot! Can’t wait for your updates.Especially after this weekend! Keep up the good work! Miss you on KC…GO CHIEFS!


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